When it comes to online coupon deals like Groupon, Townhog, etc, I’ve become a bit of an obsessive. For someone who relishes the chance to try new places to eat, these sites offer daily slices of opportunity. Now, most of the time, the opportunity isn’t something I’m particularly interested in. Many mornings I have rushed to my email to see what is in store for me and my appetite (and my wallet) today, and many mornings I have immediately dismissed the 50% off of manicures, or hot air balloon rides, or new carpeting.
Other mornings, I’ve come across a restaurant deal that sounded pretty appealing, but I hesitated too long, coming back to sign up for it only to find that it had sold out. Groupon, especially, seems to take a sadistic pleasure in disappointing people who are silly enough to pussyfoot around a good deal. (Good deal or not, sometimes it takes a lot of thought before I’m just willing to spend twenty bucks. I don’t have the kind of income level that affords me flippancy with that amount of money. Sorry, Groupon.)
It’s those ten-dollar deals that always get me. Ten for twenty. Not a lot of initial investment, especially when the deal is for a place you’ve been dying to try. Hence, when Townhog was offering a ten for twenty on Sababa Middle Eastern Grill, I jumped so immediately on the deal, my computer shook with fear.
Sababa is located on Murray Avenue in what used to house, among other things, a coffee shop and Mr. Willie’s BBQ. I never got a chance to try Mr. Willie’s, but I had made more than a few visits to the coffee shop when I was living in Squirrel Hill during my last few years in college. The coffee and food had been decent enough, but I remember thinking the place lacked in atmosphere. The environment was strangely sterile, with white walls, white counter, and generic tables and chairs. When it eventually closed up, none of us were that surprised. It didn’t feel lived in, therefore it felt temporary.
The same cannot be said of Sababa. I was sure there would be significant changes to the layout of the restaurant, so I was surprised when the layout was basically the same as it had been all those years ago. Counter along one side and the back, tables on either side in a kind of semi-circle. But the differences were tremendous: Instead of white walls, the walls were a soft, peachy color, with decorations carefully arranged throughout. A front table display held business cards, decorations, and a little sign advertising soup and bourekas. The furniture was basic and wooden, but the tone of wood complemented the surroundings and simple white table covers dressed things up just enough to feel classy, but not fussy.
Me and my dining companion for the evening, Jackie, started things off right with a falafel platter: Six warm, crispy rounds of falafel neatly arranged around a dish of the hummus and accompanied by a heaping basket of pillowy, warm pita bread. We were instantly smitten with the falafel and hummus, which were top-notch, but the true star here was the pita. Fresh, doughy, and with a distinct flavor all of its own, in comparison with most store-bought pita, this was in a different world all together. It was sturdy, but soft, so soft I wasn’t sure whether to eat it or snuggle with it. To put it in a slightly more perverse-sounding way, I might have had little crushes on our appetizers, but with the pita, it was love at first bite.
One glance at the menu reminded me of the dish that had piqued my interest upon first reading about Sababa – Shakshuka, a Middle Eastern stew comprised of tomatoes, onions, and peppers and topped with two over-easy eggs. Our friendly waitress asked me if I wanted it spicy, to which I responded “the spicier the better.” She took this as a cue to not only have the kitchen bump up the heat on the dish, but to provide me with two containers of spicy sauce on the side. Even the extra heat didn’t deter the pure fresh flavors of the dish. Like the falafel and hummus, the dish held nearly perfect flavor. There was nothing overwhelming about the seasoning, which was minimal, but there was tremendous flavor all the same. The eggs were lightly herbed and well served by the tomato base that tied them together with the milder peppers and onions. It was excellent on the fork and on the (at this point thoroughly beloved) pita.
Jackie is a sucker for anything wrapped in phyllo dough – as are we all, if we’re being honest – so she went for the eggplant bourekas. Phyllo, if prepared well, has a lot of flavor, so anything stuffed inside of it need not be super seasoned. The stuffed puff pastry was baked to crispness, but it was balanced by the soft and flavorful eggplant filling. The quality and freshness of the ingredients was once again startlingly good, echoed in the crisp, slightly acidic bite of the tabouli salad that was served alongside the main course. Tabouli can be so easy to get wrong – many places that I otherwise thoroughly enjoy serve tabouli that is just a step away from being inedible (usually due to an overwhelming amount of acidity in the dish) – but at Sababa, the tabouli was just right. It held all the flavor of the unseasonably warm weather outside, satisfying without being heavy.
Having demolished our entrees, we were happily fed, but not over full, so we decided to push ourselves a step farther and order baklava as a shared dessert. For anyone used to the sickly sweet variation of the treat, this baklava may come as a surprise and slight disappointment. Gone is the heavy syrup, replaced with a liberal sprinkling of crushed pistachios. Sababa’s baklava is served into two small rounds side by side, and is more nutty than sweet. As a capper to a meal that was all about fresh, mild flavors, it was an absolute fit.
Our first experience at Sababa was fantastic. The quality of the food was only second to the quality of service we received. Our waitress was super friendly and helpful, refilling our glasses before we had even noticed they were empty. She checked in on us without being obtrusive and answered all of our questions in a helpful, knowledgeable manner. The highlight of our service experience, however, was a visit from the chef, who had come to apologize to Jackie for the extra time her bourekas was taking. Turns out that the first one he made wasn’t quite up to his standard, so he scrapped it and prepared her a new one. We were so impressed with that kind of attentiveness that we would have gladly waited an extra fifteen minutes, instead of the mere extra five we ended up waiting.
Nearing the end of the meal, the chef returned to thank us for our patronage and to encourage us to spread the word about the restaurant on Urbanspoon and by word of mouth. Well, sir, your restaurant more than earned a good review. I can only hope I’ve done this wonderful gem of an eatery justice. I can’t wait for my next visit.